Is Sugar the New Fat?

After a morning aerobics class at the local YMCA, I was catching my breath in the locker room and chatting to two women from the class. They know I am a registered dietitian nutritionist so the conversation turned from our hard workout to what else….food. One of the women asked me about calcium and what were the best sources. She said she gave up drinking milk because it had too much sugar….11 grams of sugar in a cup of milk and didn’t I think that was outrageous?!  Before I could answer the other woman chimed in and started talking about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation that sugar intake should be halved to 5% of total calories or about 6 teaspoons or 25 grams a day for an average person.

So, back to the calcium question. I suggested a glass of 100% orange juice fortified with calcium as a good way to start the day. Fortified orange juice contains needed nutrients (130% of the daily value for vitamin C, 25% of the daily value for vitamin D, and 35% (or 350 milligrams) of the calcium daily value); that goes a long way in helping women meet the 1200 milligrams of calcium recommended for women of our age. Both women were surprised (shocked?) that a dietitian would suggest drinking fruit juice. “What about all that sugar?” was the reply. I wish I had my carton of OJ to show them that 1 cup of 100% orange juice has 22 grams of sugar and that the sugar is naturally occurring in fruit and fruit juice. These are same women who were sipping on post-exercise recovery drinks that were “all natural.” One had a Snapple Cranberry Raspberry (16 ounces = 51 grams of sugar) and Odwalla Mango Tango (16 ounces= 44 grams of sugar).

Sugar is becoming the new fat. Remember when we abhorred fat and removed fat from our favorite foods? That brought us such interesting foods as fat-free cookies (loaded with sugar and refined carbohydrates), fat-free cheese (scary stuff that tasted like plastic), and fat-free coffee cakes (remember Entenmann’s? Fat-free goodies but often with more calories than the original coffee cake). Now, sugar has taken fat’s placed as the new nutrient to be vilified.

Yes, we can all afford to decrease our sugar intake, but why eliminate healthy foods, like orange juice or pineapple juice or milk or yogurt that contain naturally occurring sugars? I work with athletes who are trying to gain weight and I recommended low-fat chocolate milk and 100% fruit juices like grape and orange and apple to boost calories while getting needed nutrients. I think it is better to get real foods with real nutrients than taking protein powdered drinks.

The WHO recommendation is meant to help curb obesity and reduce dental cavities but there are unintended consequences when we demonize one nutrient and try to find a replacement for it. The woman who questioned the sugar in low-fat milk said she read online that almond milk was lower in sugar. True, but did she also notice that almond milk is lower in protein? A cup of almond milk has 1-2 grams of protein yet a glass of low-fat milk has 8 grams of protein. We need the protein in the low-fat milk more than we need fewer sugar calories in almond milk.

So, if you want to reduce sugar intake (and, we all should), start reading labels and look for the hidden sugars in your favorite foods. Check out your brand of peanut butter, catsup, soup, and pasta sauce and see how much sugar is lurking in those foods. Find alternatives (take your reading glasses to the grocery store) but don’t give up healthy, nutritious foods just because there is some naturally-occurring sugars in them. I am not giving up my OJ despite the WHO recommendation.

7 thoughts on “Is Sugar the New Fat?

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